LGBTQ in Israel: When Tel Aviv Meets the Rabbinate

What Happened?

LGBTQ rights activists in Israel are marking a milestone of a record number of openly gay lawmakers currently serving in the Knesset. With the appointment of Blue and White party member Yorai Lahav-Hertzano last week, the Knesset now has six openly gay MKs, representing 5 percent of parliament, the fourth-highest percentage in the world, behind only Britain, Liechtenstein and the Scottish parliament. Pledging to fight for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ surrogacy rights, 31-year-old Lahav-Hertzano said, “I’m gay and I’m proud of being gay, and I’m very proud to be a gay lawmaker in Israel.” This comes as Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai announced that same-sex couples will now be allowed to register as married and enjoy marital rights, in a challenge to the national government. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality removed an LGBTQ pride banner from a US Embassy building, with Deputy Mayor Arieh King stating, “Anybody that tries to defile the holiness of Jerusalem needs to be opposed.” Though annual Pride Parades in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities were canceled due to coronavirus, thousands of Israelis still attended rallies for LGBTQ rights across the country, and police arrested 27 far-right activists in advance over concerns that they might disrupt the event. The City of Tel Aviv also announcedHabib Albi” (Arabic for “Love of My Heart”) by Static and Ben El Tavori with Nasreen Kadri as its official Pride song for 2020. The song, including the backgrounds of its three performers, highlight the diversity of Tel Aviv and its LGBTQ community. Static was adopted abroad by an Israeli couple and raised Jewish, Ben El is of Mizrahi descent and Qadri is an Israeli Arab who was raised Muslim and converted to Judaism. The three performers are surrounded by diverse members of the Tel Aviv LGBTQ community in the video. Their upbeat anthem combines Hebrew, English and Arabic, and implores listeners: “Say you love me like we do in Tel Aviv.”

Why Does This Matter?

What is pinkwashing?

In the context of LGBTQ rights, pinkwashing describes a political strategy of promoting gay-friendliness in order to appear progressive and tolerant. This criticism is leveled against Israelis in two very different ways. The first is when Israelis accuse their own politicians of spending billions of shekels to promote Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade, at the same time that they do not invest equal resources to advance the rights of LGBTQ Israelis. The second category of pinkwashing comes from outside of Israel, especially supporters of the BDS movement, and is used as a weapon against Israelis and the Jewish state. This is the accusation that Israel hosts Pride parades and promotes gay rights and culture only in order to distract from what some refer to as the occupation of the Palestinian people. Ido Aharoni, former Israeli consul general in New York City, rejects this: “We are not trying to hide the conflict but broaden the conversation,” he says. “We want to create a sense of relevance with other communities.” And Linda Dayan, an LGBTQ Israeli agrees, stating that “anti-pinkwashing ‘progressives’ don’t see LGBTQ Israelis as real people, only pawns.”

What is the legal status of same-sex marriage in Israel?

Same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel, leading many gay couples who want to get married to do so outside of the country. This is because there is no system of civil marriage in Israel. In a practice dating back to Ottoman times, all matters concerning marriage and divorce in Israel are handled by religious courts. Jewish couples must marry through the Chief Rabbinate, which refuses to perform same-sex or interfaith marriages, while Christians, Druze, and Muslims must marry through their own state-sanctioned religious institutions within Israel. Israel does, however, recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of Israel: “There is a trend of marrying abroad and then coming back to Israel to be recognized,” Hebrew University professor of family law Ram Rivlin explained. In terms of legal protections against the discrimination of members of the LGBTQ community, Israel outlawed employment discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in 1992, and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Israeli military has been formally accepted since 1993.

Tel Aviv: Israel’s Hub for LGBTQ Culture and Pride

At the same time that same-sex couples are unable to marry in Israel, Tel Aviv is known to be one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the world. The city holds one of the world’s largest annual Pride parades, which typically takes place over a full week and has attracted as many as 250,000 people in recent years. Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai has emphasized that the Pride parade has national and international significance, beyond being just a celebration: “Tel Aviv…will continue to be a light-house city, spreading the values of freedom, tolerance and democracy to the world.” In a region like the Middle East, Tel Aviv stands out as a rare symbol of acceptance and coexistence and its LGBTQ-friendly culture extends to Israeli film and television as well. Recent successful Israeli films with LGBTQ themes include “Montana” (2017) and “Yossi and Jagger” (2002) and television shows such as “Transkids” (2019). So, while state-sponsored religious authorities employ a more traditional standard to questions of marriage, and while religious Israelis are generally conservative in their attitudes on LGBTQ issues, the city of Tel Aviv and much of Israeli culture offer a progressive alternative.

Diversity of Perspectives

Despite recent surveys showing that most Israelis are in favor of same-sex marriage, Israeli politicians and leaders who agree have not yet been able to convert that support into legislation. Former Yesh Atid party MK Aliza Lavie, who proposed a bill that would have instituted civil marriage (including gay marriage) in Israel, told the Times of Israel, “We have to allow a civil alternative for all of the couples [who] prefer not to go through the rabbinate.” Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who participated in Jerusalem’s Pride march last year, also supports civil marriage, as well as allowing gay couples to use a surrogate in order to have a child: “We don’t tell anyone what to do or how to live,” he told Israel’s Channel 12 news. Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (“Be Free Israel”), which promotes religious pluralism in Israel, has also been outspoken in support of gay marriage in Israel, telling Ynetnews, “There is no other option besides the immediate legislation of a civil marriage law.” Shmuel Shattach, director of the “open and self-critical” religious Zionist group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, agrees. He told the Times of Israel, “It is time for Israeli politicians, including the religious ones, to finally begin reflecting the sentiments of many within Israeli society.”

On the other side of the cultural and religious divide, there are a range of views in the Orthodox community on homosexuality. On one extreme, during last year’s Pride parade in Jerusalem, some residents of the Old City of Jerusalem, quoted in Arutz Sheva, referred to LGBTQ flags hanging in the city’s streets as “abomination flags.” They were upset that significant money was spent on the LGBTQ community, “which hurts Judaism’s basic principles and takes pride in committing some of the worst sins in the Torah.” Similarly, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Aryeh Stern, wrote to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon to ask that he not allow the gay pride flags to wave throughout the city. He wrote, “I know from the point of view of the law, the mayor has no ability to prevent the parade, and therefore I ask you to at least give a ruling for the flags not to be waved, as they make the city ugly.” Recently, another ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, Meir Mazuz, claimed that the spread of coronavirus is divine retribution for gay pride parades. Israeli rabbis from more liberal Orthodox groups, like Rabbi Benny Lau, have called for a change in these attitudes. Lau, the former leader of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, was quoted in Haaretz, saying: “Nobody should have to live in a closet. A closet is death. A home is life.” Although Lau does not endorse gay marriage, he is in favor of formalized legal partnerships for same-sex couples, and has attended a gay wedding. Rabbi Daniel Sperber told Haaretz that there is a “new consensus” emerging in liberal Orthodoxy on the issue, including “a growing feeling that one has to…accept [gay and lesbian people] as members of the community and the synagogue.” Meanwhile, Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, who is affiliated with the Rabbinate in Israel, defended the current marriage system because this preserves a single practice for Judaism. He stated that “centralized rabbinical marriage registration…is recognized throughout the Jewish world.”